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Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle www.mn.catholic.org.au
Dr Roger Peters of Newcastle writes from
his professional experience and expertise on
a subject that is perennially engaging and
For over thir ty year s I have worked with
many people who have been hur t, and
continue to suffer because of abuse , often
decades earlier. Psychological inter vention,
whether by a psychiatrist or psychologist, is
often called 'ther apy', which means 'to heal'.
It involves working with people to help
them better under stand the ways we think
about our selves and the world in which we
live. It aims to ar rest faulty thinking.
Many therapies include emphasis on the
client's spiritual development. After all, we
are "not so much a human on a spiritual
journey but a spirit on a human jour ney".
Many psychologists are reluctant to engage
here and take a more humanistic approach.
Yet consider the cur rent popularity of
'mindfulness' psychology, with its Buddhist
roots, an approach significantly older than
psychology itself. This 'new' psychology
cer tainly engages the spiritual domain.
I think some, including psychologists, are
confused by spirituality and religion. My
Microsoft thesaurus identifies religion
and spirituality as being synonymous !
Psychology as a term has its roots in
the Greek word psyche, meaning 'soul'.
From my per spective, with or without
religion, each of us has a soul and this
is at the centr e of my approach when
providing ther apy.
Here I will consider how science shows us
the value of forgiveness in our lives. For me,
to forgive is to wilfully put aside feelings of
resentment I may have towards a person
who has committed a wrong, been unfair,
hur tful or other wise harmed me. Whether
a person's spiritual jour ney is via Buddhism,
Islam, Christianity or other faiths, there is
tremendous emphasis on the impor tance
of forgiving. The Lord's Pr ayer exhor ts
us to forgive other s . Often this is hard to
do. Jesus forgave while dying, and mar tyr s
throughout histor y have imitated him.
Per sonally, I find it much easier to forgive if
the offender is not still harming me. I think
Jesus' suggestion to "turn the other cheek "
is often misunderstood. It is extr aordinary
to see the forgiveness given by Sandy
McGregor to Richard Maddrell, who
murder ed Sandy's three daughter s and their
friend. Sandy says forgiveness is about the
forgiver, not the forgiven, so he honour s his
children by getting on with his life. To do so,
he had to rid himself of what he regarded
as "the monkey on my back ".
Since the death of Nelson Mandela , many
of us may have thought about how this
man changed the cour se of human history.
Desmond Tutu said recently, "The time in
gaol was quite crucial; suffering embitters
some people, but ennobles other s."
Mandela not only forgave, but reconciled
with past enemies.
Forgiveness can be misunderstood, and
SCIENCE AND FORGIVENESS:
DR ROGER PETERS
it doesn't have to lead to reconciliation.
Miroslav Volf says forgiveness simply
prepar es a point of neutr ality so that a
decision can be made then to re-embrace,
or exclude a per son from our lives. In
fact, r econciliation may be quite har mful.
Jennifer Noll recommends that victims
of child abuse should not be encour aged
to reconcile with their abusers. This was
based on her findings that those who
had let go of their anger and the desire
for revenge had few symptoms of Post
Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and
better relationships with their mothers.
However, when reconciled, they had
higher levels of dissociation and symptoms
of PTSD. Noll added that a renewal of a
relationship ha s the potential to make them
feel powerless again.
Another bar rier to forgiveness is often
the sense that the perpetrator is being
somehow 'let off '. Sandy did not forgive
Richard Maddrell with an expectation that
they would have any ongoing relationship
and cer tainly, Richard Maddrell is spending
his life in gaol. The righteous robber on the
cross, forgiven by Jesus, had still to pay the
penalty for his crimes .
Forgiveness is freeing oneself by disengaging
from the hur t and rancour and letting go of
thoughts of revenge. While forgiveness in
a community can lead to healing, it does so
with the focus on the har med, rather than
the perpetr ator. I have learned to forgive as
par t of my maturing, but also I take cour age
by following my own father 's example.
He was held captive in World War II in
Poland for five year s -- and forgave. His
forgiveness liberated him from an emotional
prison as well as the one in which he was
incarcer ated and so brutally treated, but
from which he escaped.
There are both psychological and physical
rea sons to forgive and, as you might guess,
it involves the impact of anxiety on our
wellbeing. In shor t, we know that distr ess
increases a par ticular hor mone, which has
an inflammator y effect on the immune
system. In the simplest of analogies, it was
not actually the witch doctor s 'pointing the
bone' that caused har m, but the belief that
Alex Harris thinks that forgiveness and not
forgiving -- "unforgiveness" -- have quite
the opposite effect on our wellbeing. He
explains that unforgiveness leads to a r ange
of emotions -- hate, revenge, hostility, anger
-- that are read by our bodies as stressor s
antagonistic to our health. It's not that we
shouldn't get angry; in fact the evidence
says it's not a bad idea , once in a while, to
blow off some steam. It's dangerous when
it becomes obsessive r umination, living the
hur t over and over again, invoking the same
mistaken beliefs : it is supposed to be a just
world; why did this happen to me? The
gospel tells us , "he causes r ain to fall on the
just and the unjust" (Matthew 5:45).
Forgiveness, when introduced in therapy,
does not come easily for many. I suspect it's
this inability to forgive that causes some to
be in ther apy in the fir st place, and often
the failure to forgive leads ther apy to be
impotent. Some are able to manage the
seemingly impossible, like Sandy McGregor
and Nelson Mandela, but most of us are not
called to do so. There are those who have
suffered at the hands of this systematic and
sustained abuse, who hold on to the abuse
and remain captive. What forgiveness can
do is liberate, and in this way, it becomes
integr al to any healing and fr eedom from
pain. Unforgiveness sadly keeps many
chained to the past, immer sed in r age,
hostility and r ancour.
Philomena Lee, in the recently released film
Philomena, says, "I forgive because I don't
want to remain angry." In doing so, she
finally freed her self from fifty year s
To explore this idea further, you may
wish to read, "He shall judge the poor
with justice" by Christine Allen at ww w.
She writes, "If we can be brave enough to
forgive, even in our own small ways, that is
the most revolutionary act of all."
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